Johannesburg - Prasa’s own engineers warned in a report that its new Afro 4000 diesel locomotives, which were bought from Spain at a cost of R600m, could come so close to overhead power lines in certain parts of the country’s poorly maintained railway lines that they could pose a significant safety hazard.
City Press’ sister publication, Rapport, has also established that the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) sent an “SOS” message in engineering terms to Spain on 5 November 2013 to ask whether the expensive locomotives, which had been ordered eight months previously, could not be lowered further.
Prasa wanted a locomotive, which now stands 4 140mm high, and according to the initial order would have been 4 264mm high, to be lowered to 3 965mm, the maximum height for this type of train in South Africa.
But Vossloh España said in a letter, which Rapport obtained, that the Prasa request was unfortunately not possible.
“Although it is not possible to reduce Euro 4000 locomotives’ height below 4 140mm ... it is understood that with actual height and with the information we manage, the locomotives should be acceptable for operations on South African tracks,” says Vossloh’s letter to Prasa, sent in late 2013.
Barely a week later, Prasa went ahead and paid R468m for the first locomotives.
In March this year, Transnet Freight Rail general manager Caesar Mtetwa wrote to to Prasa’s chief engineer, Dr Daniel Mtimkulu, stating the Afro 4000 exceeded the permitted height limit for Transnet’s rail system.
Prasa insisted this past week that the country’s overhead power lines were at least 4.5 metres above the rail tracks and the Afro 4000 would pass beneath them comfortably.
Prasa head Lucky Montana also referred to a report by the University of Stellenbosch that said the Afro 4000 would function safely under power lines 4.5m high.
The university later said in a statement, however, they had never confirmed that the Afro 4000 was safe under “all” railway conditions.
City Press now understands that although the power lines are supposed to be no lower than 4.5m, as they were in many of Prasa and the university’s tests, there are many places in the country where, because of poor maintenance, overhead wires are much lower than they should be.
In Prasa’s own report of February 2014 they pointed out four places where the lines are as low as 4.22m: “The height of the locomotive encroaches too close to the contact wire driver exposure risk factor is high,” said the Prasa document.
The normally accepted safe distance between the locomotive roof and cables is at least 150mm.
At the Denver bridge near Johannesburg, for example, there will only be 10mm between the Afro 4000’s roof and high-tension electrical cables, which poses an “operational electrical risk”, according to Prasa’s own engineers.
According to experts, the maintenance on both Transnet and Prasa’s rail lines is in a such a poor state that power lines will have to be raised to provide for the Afro 4000.
The engineer recommends a “design review” and that the delivery of the Afro 4000 be delayed.
City Press understands that cables that are too low could be lifted. It is unclear what it would cost, however.
Prasa also boasted last week that the train had already travelled safely between Cape Town and Johannesburg from the Cape Town Jazz Festival.
But a letter from Transnet, which Rapport has also obtained, shows that the journey did not go entirely smoothly.
In an e-mail by a Transnet official sent to some 20 employees of Transnet and Prasa late in March, Prasa is criticised because it pulled a premier-class train on the way back from the jazz festival to Johannesburg with an Afro 4000 without the required authorisation from Transnet.
“No notice / YQ [jargon meaning clearance] was issued for such a move [the journey]. Please arrange for the locomotive to be taken off the train,” the e-mail read.
On June 30, Magiel Pretorius, Transnet’s chief administrative officer, issued a notice to Transnet and Prasa in which he noted the height problem.
“Due to known height restrictions in the Viertienstrome to Kimberley section, the Afro class locomotive is not authorised to run between Viertienstrome and Kimberley at present.”
Meanwhile, two of the 13 locomotives delivered in South Africa so far were pulled this week by an old South African-manufactured 6E class locomotive from Cape Town for adjustments, according a Vossloh document. Prasa spokesperson Moffet Mofokeng reiterated again yesterday that his agency would “once again provide a comprehensive factual account to disprove the allegations that the height of the Afro 4000 exceeds the requirements of the rail industry in the country”.
“We invite all the media, including Rapport, to a presentation and a ride on the locomotives on Monday [tomorrow]. We will also prove how Rapport’s reporting has been changing from its initial misleading article, which demonstrates that the intent is malicious and sensational.”